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US moves to seize yacht of prominent Pandora Papers-linked Russian oligarch

Gold billionaire Suleyman Kerimov violated sanctions in funding the luxury ship, U.S. says.

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Authorities in the island nation of Fiji have seized the superyacht of a sanctioned Russian oligarch and are expected to turn the vessel over to the United States, the U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday.

The 348-foot yacht, called the Amadea, is owned by Suleyman Kerimov, the U.S. said. Kerimov is a gold tycoon who made a fortune buying up energy assets and major stakes in Russian banks after the fall of the Soviet Union. He is also a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, and was one of a select group of powerful oligarchs summoned by Putin to Moscow on the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

The vessel has been in legal limbo since late last month, after it unexpectedly sailed into Fijian waters, and was held in port by authorities there.

The announcement follows an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists into the offshore financial empire of Kerimov and his closest associates. ICIJ reporters traced billions of dollars flowing through opaque offshore shell companies associated with Kerimov. In many cases, these secretive transfers stumped bank compliance officers trying to understand who was behind the massive wires.

In announcing the seizure, the Justice Department said it was acting on a forfeiture warrant issued by a federal court that had found “probable cause” that Kerimov had maintained the $300 million ship by illegally moving money through U.S. banks. Fijian authorities, with the support and assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, acted pursuant to a mutual assistance treaty, the Justice Department said.

“This yacht seizure should tell every corrupt Russian oligarch that they cannot hide – not even in the remotest part of the world,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco in a press release.

The Amadea’s seizure is one of the most high profile moves for a new task force led by the Justice Department to identify and seize assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. The task force, known as KleptoCapture, was announced shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and came amid a new raft of sanctions on Russian oligarchs. Kerimov was first sanctioned by the United States in 2018. Britain and the European Union followed suit this year.

The super luxury motor yacht Amadea, one of the largest in the world, is seen anchored at a pier in Bodrum district of Mugla province in Turkey on Feb. 18, 2020. Image: Osman Uras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Thursday’s filing states that, shortly after the Ukraine invasion, the Amadea began to intermittently shut off its digital tracking system that allows remote tracking of a ship. While the system is used by researchers and investigators to monitor ships, it is primarily intended as a means to prevent ships from colliding on the high seas.

When the Amadea arrived in Fiji in mid-April, local authorities searched the vessel and found “numerous documents detailing transactions engaged in on behalf of the AMADEA,” according to the filing. Those documents detailed “Kerimov and those acting on his behalf” moving money through U.S. banks during the time that he was under sanctions.

An attorney for Kerimov did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

ICIJ’s Kerimov reporting is part of Pandora Papers Russia, an effort by ICIJ and global partners to shed light on covert money flows tied to oligarchs and others close to the Kremlin in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The project also highlighted offshore professionals who have helped oligarchs secretly buy luxury assets like yachts and jets.

The investigation showed the difficulties facing the U.S. in its mission to locate and seize assets connected to Kerimov and other Russian billionaires, who have increasingly turned to opaque offshore shell companies that can conceal assets.

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